|The Little Room:|
A Story of Growing Up in Mao’s China
|by Yafei Hu|
© Yafei Hu 2002
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I often have this feeling: I wish I had a brother!
I wish I had a brother who was proud of having me as a sister. If we met his friends on the street, he would put his hands on my shoulders, give me a gentle push, and say, “Meet Nan-nan, my sister.” I would nod at his friends, and of course at his words as well.
Why do I wish I had a brother? I do have a brother.
He is two years older than I am. Everybody calls him Maomao. I call him “Gege,” meaning “older brother.” In China, younger siblings don’t address older siblings by their names; older brothers are always referred to as “older brother.” To me, Older Brother (“Gege”) is my brother’s name.
I must have lost Gege somewhere. It’s like playing with someone in a dark labyrinth: you decide you’ll call each other once in a while to make sure you stay together. Once, however, you call your friend and he doesn’t answer. You call him again, and again ... till you realize you’ve lost him.
Mother said she had a very difficult time at Gege’s birth. He was pulled out by the doctors with forceps. He didn’t seem willing to come into the world.
Gege was a handsome little boy at the age of five: dark, bright eyes, thick eyebrows, a long, straight nose, and thin lips. He had everything Mother and Father could hope for in their first child. Mother liked to comb his hair like an adult’s—parted on the side. She wanted Gege to be different from other boys.
She didn’t need to try very hard. Every day, Gege became more different from other boys. He didn’t speak much—hardly at all, in fact. He used his head instead of his mouth to convey what he wanted and didn’t want: nodding for yes, shaking for no. Sometimes he did neither, but just kept his mouth shut, leaving it to Mother and Father to figure out what he wanted.
Mother said, “What a wordless child! The forceps are to blame.”
Grandma said, “Maomao is the best boy—no words, no trouble.”
These words seemed to have cast a heavy shadow over Gege. He never grew out of being wordless. Although he was stingy with words, he was expressive with his eyes. With grown-ups outside the family, he wouldn’t speak a word, although he seemed to know that Mother and Father wished he would. He looked up at them with his lips sealed and his chin tucked in. Whenever he did this to grown-ups, he seemed to be saying, “I look up at you not because I have to but because I choose to.”
Grown-ups often said to Mother and Father, “Was your Maomao unhappy about something?”
“No, no, no,” Mother and Father were always in a hurry to cut short the discussion, “he’s happy, but we aren’t that happy because he didn’t get our blood. He may have blood type B.”
It was said that blood type B gave a person a strange chemistry.
Gege fell in love with stamps at the age of ten. He collected all kinds of stamps. Only when with his stamps—an assortment of patterns, shapes, colors and numbers—was Gege bursting with words. Mother and Father weren’t chosen to hear. I was granted the privilege. I became Gege’s admiring and loyal listener. He explained to me with a great deal of patience that only the numbered stamps were collectable; some numbers showed the amount of the stamps in the set and some showed the order in which they followed one another. He kept his stamps between pages of books, close to the spines. For quite a while, the first thing I did after school was to admire his stamp books. I would pick up one of them, hold it at the spine with one hand, and quickly let the pages go between the thumb and the index finger of the other.
I was a collector, too; I collected rubber bands. Jumping a rubber-band rope was the most popular game among my friends. You have four people in a group—two holding the ends of the rope (which was made of hundreds of rubber bands chained to each other), two to jump in the middle. You have the jumpers humming and jumping to a tune, wrapping the rope around the legs in myriad patterns, getting in and out of the rope in various ways, and most importantly, making no mistakes.
I took one rubber band each day from the milk bottle. The milk was for Lili, my younger sister. Six years younger than me, Lili got special treatment from Mother and Father. Gege and I didn’t drink milk because Mother and Father couldn’t afford to buy milk for all three of us. Every morning, the milkman delivered Lili’s milk to the door of the apartment building, along with milk for the other babies in the building. Bringing the milk home was one of my chores; I took one bottle from the crate and carried it up to the fourth floor where we had our two-bedroom apartment. I was delighted to be assigned this chore because it gave me an opportunity to enlarge my rubber band collection. All milk bottles were covered with waxed paper. Each waxed paper was held down by a red rubber band. I not only took the rubber band from Lili’s milk bottle, I also volunteered to bring milk to our neighbors, so that I could ask them afterwards for their rubber bands.
Gege and I shared a bedroom. It was only nine square meters in size. We called it the Little Room, as opposed to the bigger bedroom occupied by Mother, Father and Lili. Gege and I shared everything except beds. We couldn’t help being territorial. Gege’s stamp books were big and numerous. First they occupied his side of the desk we shared; later, they expanded onto my side. His massive book blocks mercilessly covered my rubber-band roll. I had to fish for the roll when I needed it. Compared to Gege’s glamorous stamp books, my rubber band roll seemed tiny, plain, and pitiful.
I grew envious of Gege’s stamp collection. He couldn’t get a letter every day. How did he get so many stamps? I didn’t ask Gege because I knew he wouldn’t tell me. I began my detective work.
One day after school, I was on my way to join my friends for rope jumping. As I was rushing downstairs, I heard a familiar voice coming from the direction of the mail boxes at the front door of the building.
“... May I please?” It was Gege.
I saw him standing on his toes behind Uncle Wang, the plumber who lived on the second floor, and trying to look over his broad shoulders. I smelled something fishy. I walked by as quietly as I could, got out of the building, and hid behind the door. The door had been propped open with a wedge of wood. Holding my breath, I peeked through the crack between the door and its frame.
Uncle Wang took a bundle of letters and papers out of his mail box. Gege seized his opportunity.
“May I have the stamps on the envelopes, please!” He sounded so sincere and eager. Anybody would give him what he wanted.
“Go away! Go away!” Uncle Wang didn’t seem in a good mood. “Not every day!” He opened one letter with his careless fingers. The stamp was immediately torn apart. Before he headed upstairs, he didn’t forget to throw a dirty look at Gege.
Gege was left alone, gazing after Uncle Wang, wordless.
I turned my head away and left. It hurt to watch more.
That was how Gege collected his stamps! He begged for them! It was against his nature, but he did it to achieve success. Why did he choose a hobby so difficult to keep? On the other hand, why was Uncle Wang so mean? He’d rather destroy a stamp than give it to a child, to whom it meant a lot. Worse still, he seemed to enjoy defeating Gege by one stamp. What a narrow-minded person! I despised him! I decided not to call him Uncle Wang any more.
My friends were waiting for me. I wasn’t in the mood to jump rope, but I did. There must be two holders for the two jumpers. When it was our turn to jump, I messed up big time. My partner didn’t stop complaining the whole time we were holding. I welcomed the holding, because then I didn’t have to concentrate hard. I couldn’t help but see in front of my eyes over and over the picture of Gege’s conversation with the plumber. Suddenly it dawned on me that the plumber must have held something against Gege. He must dislike Gege for some reason. Perhaps he would have given the stamp to a child he liked. Yes! He had given me rubber bands from his milk bottles. He seemed to like me. He often smiled at me, and I often smiled back. It took only an instinct to smile back at people when they smiled at you. Gege didn’t seem to have the instinct. They say smiling isn’t a natural inclination with people who have blood type B. Perhaps things would be easier if I helped Gege. I should join Gege collecting stamps. While my partner continued complaining, I made up my mind to help Gege.
I applied to be Gege’s assistant. Gege frowned, hesitating. Then he nodded yes. We teamed up.
No surprise! My participation brought Gege bigger “income”! Every evening we soaked a handful of stamps in a big washing bowl. They would be cleared of glue by the next morning. The window in the Little Room was a great place to dry them: we stuck them wet on the glass; they danced off in the sunlight when they were dry. Then followed a time for celebrating the successes and forgetting the frustrations.
I got more deeply involved in the project every day. It was my job to get him somebody to exchange stamps with. Every day, Gege would assign a name to me: “Call Xia-xia.” Xia-xia was my friend Dong-dong’s brother; he was in the same class as Gege, and lived nearby. Having received the order from Gege, I would lean over the balcony railing, stretch my neck far out, and shout with all my might, “Xia-xia! Come over please! My brother is ready to exchange!” Gege would say, “Louder!” I would obey, believing I did shout louder each time. Sometimes it was Xia-xia, sometimes it was Da-lin. I was proud to be a helper, and prouder to be a partner.
Before long Gege asked for a stamp album. Everybody else had one. I could picture Gege appearing in front of the boys, with a new album in his hands! I couldn’t wait for Mother and Father to get him one. But Mother said it was too expensive. It cost five days’ food coupons for the entire family. It would be absurd for Mother and Father to spoil Gege like that, and it was too extravagant a lifestyle for Gege. I felt sorry for Gege. I saw him clenching his teeth and accepting his defeat in silence. Mother said to Gege, “I will make you one.”
Mother was a woman of virtue and conformity. She embraced everything the Party advocated. The Party said frugality was the only means by which socialism could be accomplished, and frugality meant living a life as simple as you could bear. To Mother, it all boiled down to wearing clothes with “patches upon patches.” When our clothes were worn out, Mother would stitch some rags over the worn-out spots. If she happened to have rags that were the same color and the same pattern as the clothes, she would radiate with smiles, as if she were about to buy us new clothes. If she didn’t have rags of the same color and pattern, she would explain to us how beautifully the different colors and patterns went together; they helped make a new part of the clothes, although not completely new clothes. Gege and I accepted the beauty of “patches upon patches” until Spring Festival, when we felt we had a right to ask for new clothes that were long overdue. Mother once repaired one of my plastic sanda ls by melting the ends of the two broken pieces with a hot iron rod, and connecting them while they were still hot. It smelled bad and looked different from the other sandal. After the repair, I didn’t have one pair of sandals, I had two sandals. But I didn’t mind. I was so sophisticated that I understood it didn’t have aesthetic beauty, but it had moral beauty.
Mother had proved that she had the skill to make Gege a stamp album, and she did. She went to the grocery store and got some used cardboard boxes for free. She flattened the boxes and cut them into neat pieces of the album’s size. Then she drew some neat lines on each page. At the end of each line, she made two vertical cuts, and put a strip of plastic paper through the cuts. Thus, on the front and back of each page, there were several lines of long, clear plastic pockets. That was where the stamps were supposed to go. After the loose pages were bound together with string, Mother decorated the cover with the pattern of one of Gege’s favorite stamps. It was a man playing basketball. Now Gege had his stamp album. It didn’t look sumptuous, but it sure was spacious. After sheltering Gege’s whole collection, it still had room for more.
I was back to work next day. Xia-xia was called in. No sooner had he walked through the door than I picked up Gege’s homemade album and held it up to him. I could feel my voice quivering, “See, my brother’s new album!”
Xia-xia took the album and glanced at it carelessly while walking towards the desk in our Little Room. “It sure has a weird look, Maomao,” he said, sitting down on Gege’s side of the desk.
“It’s no good. My mother made it.” Gege said in a very soft voice.
I looked at Gege with surprise. He avoided my eyes and didn’t seem to want to linger on the topic. I turned my eyes to the cover of the album lest they embarrass him further.
Time passed, and we grew older. Old hobbies were forgotten like old toys. Gege never told Mother that the homemade album had embarrassed him. Nor did I. It became a secret, a secret until this very day.
It wasn’t long before the “Cultural Revolution” struck. Everything changed overnight, like after an earthquake. Gege was in sixth grade and I was in fifth, but all of a sudden, we seemed to have hurried out of our childhood and become adults. The principal of our school was called a counter-revolutionary, we students were called revolutionaries. Teachers humbled themselves in front of us. There were no classes and no rules. There were only rallies or meetings to denounce the principal and the teachers, our oppressors; each of them seemed to have a questionable background, and each of them needed to be closely examined against the new revolutionary criteria. Did we know what the criteria were? Of course we did. Nobody dared to doubt that. If we liked a teacher, he or she would have an easier time at the meetings. If we disliked a teacher, he or she would have a harder time. Easy as that! How we loved our new identity and our new power, and all in the name of revolution! We participated in all the revolutionary activities with great enthusiasm, and we celebrated the loss of our innocence without giving it a second thought.
The elementary school was closed. Gege and I, along with a lot of other revolutionaries, were sent to a nearby middle school. At the middle school, boy revolutionaries and girl revolutionaries didn’t talk to each other. I didn’t quite understand why, but I knew it had nothing to do with the Revolution, it had to do with some boy-girl stuff. Gege and I didn’t talk to each other at home as much as we used to. We were both preoccupied with the Revolution.
I wrote articles criticizing teachers or students. Teachers were often caught being lethargic at tunnel-digging. (We dug tunnels to protect against Russian invasion, which was thought to be imminent.) Students were often caught giving false excuses for skipping music class (at which revolutionary songs were sung), or being late for Political Study. There was a lot to criticize if one kept one’s revolutionary vigilance and political alertness.
Gege had a new hobby. He fell in love with drawing. Drawing didn’t seem quite revolutionary, so he did it only at home. He started with still-life, such as mugs, books, basketballs, or fruits. Then he began to make portraits of Chairman Mao. That was supposed to be a good change, a change toward revolution, but it turned out to be just the opposite.
Mother bought Gege a stretchable ruler. He needed the ruler to enlarge a small picture of Chairman Mao into a bigger picture. Mother spent twice as much on the ruler as she would have spent on the stamp album! She was probably afraid that her children’s revolutionary antennae were sensitive enough to catch her refusing a revolutionary request.
In the Little Room, my bed was next to the window. Gege’s was opposite mine. My bed got more daylight than his. Every day after school, Gege stripped my bed to the wooden board so he could have a big, bright surface to work on Mao’s portrait. He laid a small picture of Mao on the left and a big piece of drawing paper on the right. One end of the stretchable ruler had a needle point, the other had a short pencil tied to it. The ruler was fixed to the bed board. When he moved the end of the needle point along the outlines of the small picture, the attached pencil at the other end came out with a bigger picture. I loved to watch him drawing. Often Gege worked for hours, and I watched for hours. I liked to feel I was part of the amazing project, and I did feel that way. After all he was using my bed, wasn’t he?
Soon the Little Room changed. All walls, except the window, were covered by portraits of Chairman Mao. There was Chairman Mao sitting and smoking. There was Chairman Mao standing and smiling. There was Chairman Mao delivering speeches. There was Chairman Mao waving at Red Guards. They all looked real. Chairman Mao was omnipresent.
Perhaps I had seen too much of Chairman Mao during the day, for I started to dream about Chairman Mao at night. Once I dreamt that Chairman Mao was on a fancy roofless car. Hundreds and thousands of people were following the car, screaming, crying, and fighting to have a closer look at the venerable old man. I chased the car till I was exhausted. While I was about to give up, my skirt was caught by a huge screw on the side of the car. The size of the screw was somehow blown out of proportion. It had a swollen and puffy look, but it was strong. I struggled to get off the screw, but all my efforts failed. First my feet, then my whole body, left the ground. Then I was flying in the air, dragged by the car like a slogan scroll. Chairman Mao didn’t seem to notice at all. He was busy smiling and waving at the people. Fearing for my life, I risked an untimely plea. I cried, “Stop the car, please! I was caught, Chairman Mao! I was caught, Chairman Mao!” I woke up before Chairman Mao turned around.
I believed, like everybody else, that there was an explanation for every dream. I wanted to know whether my dream was a good omen or a bad omen. I told Gege about my dream, hoping to get an intelligent explanation. After I finished telling him, I saw a wry smile on his face. He said, “It’s silly.”
So, silly it was. We continued our daily routines. Gege made portraits. I watched. But I kept having strange feelings about his making portraits of the great leader.
One day, Gege’s drawing hobby came to an end. We were told that the Red Guards were coming to our apartment to search for evidence, evidence that would prove Father was a traitor to the revolution. Father had become a Party member as a college student in Shanghai. The Party was then illegal, and he was once imprisoned by the local Nationalist government, charged with organizing an anti-government demonstration. He was later released from prison, as a result of negotiations between the college and the local Nationalist government. Now that the Communists had defeated the Nationalists, and were purging themselves of “bad elements,” everything connected to the Nationalists was being scrutinized—even their prisoners. Under this scrutiny, Father became one of the many “questionables.”
“You’re the only one who knows what really happened,” Mother said to him. “While in prison, do you remember signing any document repudiating the Party?”
“Do I have to repeat myself over and over? Could I have some peace at home?” Father obviously had enough of this at work.
“All right then, don’t be afraid of casting a crooked shadow if you have a straight body. Let them search. It’ll soon be over.” Mother was a peacemaker.
The Red Guards came. They checked drawers, wardrobes, and trunks. They broke picture frames and mirrors. They even pressed every inch of quilts and padded winter clothes with their dirty hands. They ransacked the whole apartment. They found no evidence, but they found the portraits of Mao in the Little Room. They asked who had drawn them. Gege stood at the door of the Little Room, as if guarding his portraits. He said that he had drawn them. I watched a few steps away in the dining area, quite proud of his answer. There was silence while one of the Red Guards looked around the Little Room. He seemed skeptical; he seemed to doubt that Gege could draw so well. He didn’t touch the portraits because it would be a crime to be disrespectful towards the old man—in person or on walls.
Suddenly he seemed enlightened by a great idea. He shouted at Gege, “What makes you think you have the right to draw Chairman Mao? Your father is a traitor. You have a traitor’s blood. You don’t deserve the honor!” He pushed Gege in the chest, bumping him against the door, and then stormed out of the apartment with the other Red Guards.
Gege wasn’t prepared for this. He leaned against the door of the Little Room for a couple of minutes, as if trying to wake up from a nightmare. Then, looking at the portraits, he suddenly jumped onto his bed, then onto mine, tearing the Chairman Maos off the walls one by one. Soon there was a big, messy pile of Chairman Maos on the floor. Gege jumped on the pile and stomped his feet, repeating over and over, “Do I have the honor to do this? Do I have the honor to do this?” Mother stopped picking up the mess in the other room, and came over to drag Gege away from the pile of portraits. Father ran to the apartment door and locked it. I stood against the wall in the hall way, scared to death. I felt I would hear banging on the door at any moment, and the Red Guards would come back and take Gege away from us.
Life became more difficult every day. Father was constantly interrogated at work. He never admitted that he betrayed the Party in any way, but he couldn’t shake off the allegation. In public, we were careful with our words and actions so that nobody could make crazy connections between our questionable background and what we said and did. At home, we read the Book of Chairman Mao’s Quotations as if it were the Bible. It was said there was a quotation for each problem—be it political, psychological, or economic. Mother made us read one quotation before each meal, hoping it would put our disturbed minds at peace. Gege and I were charged with selecting a quotation from the book before each meal.
It was Gege’s turn.
He selected the one he always did. He started as usual, “Our great leader Chairman Mao teaches us thus:”
Mother, Father and I read the quotation in unison, “‘We all come from different places. We work for the same revolutionary objectives. Everybody on the revolutionary team should care for each other, love each other, and help each other.’”
Just as we closed our quotation books and picked up our chopsticks, Mother looked at Gege and said, “Maomao, you’re the big brother, and you’re already fifteen. Could you help your sisters if Mom and Dad weren’t around?” Her voice quivered a little.
Gege didn’t seem to know how to respond. He looked up from his Quotation Book in search of a hint, first from Mother’s face, then from Father’s. Failing to get any, he answered in a tentative tone, “Yes.”
Then his looks landed on Mother’s face, seeming to be determined to keep the pressure on for an explanation. Mother started to act strangely. She put down her Quotation Book, and picked up the rice bowl with one hand, and the chopsticks with the other. Then she put them both back down on the table, and rose from her seat. Her chair made a loud scraping noise on the floor. She ran into her bedroom and shut the door. I noticed tears welling up in her eyes before she left the table. I looked at Gege, only to find him looking at me. We didn’t know what we had done wrong.
“We’re leaving soon.” Father broke the ice. He somehow sounded a little guilty.
“Where are you going?” I couldn’t wait to find out.
“The May 7 School.”
“What’s a May 7 School?”
“It’s a labor farm where people like me are to be re-educated, or reformed, if you will.” His sarcastic tone made me think he was resentful.
“What about us?” Gege sounded like he already knew the answer to his own question. All he needed was a confirmation.
“I wish Grandma was still with us,” I murmured. Grandma died before the Cultural Revolution started.
“Shhh...” Gege threw me a scolding stare.
Eyes red, Mother was back at the table. Her voice was never so soft, “We aren’t allowed to bring children. We’ll write...”
The day came. On the road below our apartment’s balcony, eleven buses were lined up. Groups of adults were scattered around, most of them looking worried and uncertain. Children were excited. They ran up and down the buses, shouting their friends’ names. They were celebrating this unusual occasion simply because it was unusual.
Father had gone downstairs, carrying a few small pieces of luggage. Mother was leaving the apartment. Lili and I followed her to the door. She turned around before she walked out. She said, “Don’t go out there, girls. Stay home with your brother.” She then looked at Gege and said, “Remember your promise, Maomao.” Gege had promised Mother that he’d stay home with Lili and me when the time for departure came. Mother didn’t want to say goodbye to us in public; if she were to cry, her colleagues could criticize her for showing bourgeois feelings.
“I promise,” Gege assured Mother with a great deal of consideration.
Mother pushed us back gently and closed the door behind her. We heard her hurried footsteps.
“Nan-nan, Lili, quick! Go to the balcony!” It was the first order Gege gave us after Mother and Father had left. Lili and I obeyed the order without hesitation, hoping to spot Mother and Father in the crowd and wave goodbye.
But how could we? People started to move around. The time for departure approached. Some were already on the buses. Some were ready to board. The three of us stood on the balcony, leaning on the railing and looking out hard for our parents. We were all waiting for someone else to cry out, “There! I found them!” But nobody did for quite a while. Finally Lili gave up looking. She cried loudly, “Mommy, Daddy, come back...!” She was only eight years old.
“Stop crying!” I never heard Gege so loud.
Most of the people were now on the buses. It was strangely quiet on the road. The first bus started to move. Lili’s whimpering lingered in the air, long and lonely.
“The train station!” Gege stomped his feet and shouted, “Let’s get on the last bus and go to the train station!”
“Quick, Lili!” Lili staggered behind me, I behind Gege. We ran downstairs as fast as we could, hoping to see Mother and Father one last time before the family was separated.
At the train station, Gege was running, one hand grabbing my hand, the other Lili’s. We were running toward the very end of the platform, so when the train passed us we wouldn’t miss a single car. Gege had figured all this out on the bus. He said that this way at least Mother and Father would see us, and perhaps would wave from the window.
It did happen the way Gege expected: every car passed us. It didn’t happen the way he expected: the train was accelerating. It went faster and faster. There were many faces flashing past us, and many arms waving at us. The train was too fast. We couldn’t tell which were our parents’ arms.
On our way back, Lili wasn’t crying aloud any more. She seemed afraid of Gege, our new “parent.” Tears were streaming down her face, but I could only faintly hear her sobbing. I tried hard to hold back my tears. I knew Gege would yell at me if I cried. He couldn’t handle two tearful faces. He walked very fast, in front of us. I dragged Lili, trying to catch up. We seemed to annoy the crowd by brushing their shoulders and elbowing our way through. They threw dirty looks at us, a gang of three little ones, without knowing what we had just gone through.
I felt sorry for all of us, especially for Gege. From the way he walked, I could tell he felt frustrated and embarrassed. His first attempt to make things go well for his sisters had failed. As a “parent,” he had new responsibilities and a sense of helplessness. It all came too soon. He wasn’t prepared.
There had been an arrangement about us between Mother and Father and their boss, the Party secretary. It wasn’t something that Mother and Father could choose; they had to do it this way, the Party’s way. All our furniture (which wasn’t much) was stuffed into the Little Room—even kitchen utensils and tools. The bigger room, Mother and Father’s bedroom, was occupied by another family’s furniture. Our apartment was turned into a warehouse, because nobody was going to live there. As the head of the “family,” Gege kept the key to the apartment. A copy of the key was given to the other family. Like everything else in China, our apartment was shared with people we didn’t know. Nor did we know when we were coming back.
Gege, Lili and I went to live in a big building with all the other children who had been left behind; there were about a hundred of us. There was a wooden plate above the front door of the building. It said, “Center for the Study of Mao Ze-dong Thought.” As a matter of fact, it was just a dorm building, supervised by a few adults. We never questioned why it was called “Center for the Study of Mao Ze-dong Thought.” Our minds weren’t taught to question.
In the Center, we were grouped by age instead of by family. Gege lived with his classmates on one floor, I with mine on another, and Lili with hers on another. We went to school with our roommates, and we slept with our roommates. Although Gege, Lili and I didn’t have much time to be together, I felt fine. The new lifestyle fascinated me. I kind of enjoyed the new freedom.
Three weeks went by. One evening when my roommates and I were ready to go to bed, Gege knocked on my door.
He had a letter in his hand. “Nan-nan, go get Lili. We’re going home,” he said in a commanding tone.
“Home?” I didn’t know what he meant. I thought we didn’t have a home anymore.
“We’re going to the Little Room. I’ve got a letter from Mom and Dad.”
“A letter? Where did you get it?” An-ying, one of my six roommates, jumped out of her bed and shouted.
“The office. Go check if there is one for you.” Gege stood at the door, which was now ajar. An-ying was on the floor in her pajamas. She dashed toward the door, almost knocking Gege over, and ran as fast as she could toward the office.
I was about ready to go with Gege when An-ying came back to the room. She was sniffling. Obviously there was no letter for her in the office.
Very soon, I heard muffled sniffles from all the rest of my roommates, their heads covered with their quilts. I felt sorry for them, but I couldn’t wait to go back to the Little Room to read the letter with Gege and Lili. I was full of gratitude toward Gege for his wise decision. The Little Room was the only place where we could have some privacy. It was our home after all.
“It’s drizzling outside,” Gege said.
I took my umbrella from under my bed. With six beds in a room, only the space under or over my bed belonged to me. I walked on my toes out of the room, gently shutting the door behind me.
Lili was half asleep when I appeared in front of her bed. She hurried out of her bed without hesitation after I told her why we were going back to the Little Room.
There had never been much space in the Little Room. There was hardly any now. Mother and Father’s full-size bed and three twin-size beds were all taken apart. They were stood up again the walls that used to be covered by Mao’s portraits. Two massive wardrobes stood next to each other in front of the bed boards, claiming almost half of the whole space in the room. Below the window was the dining table, with five stools stuffed underneath. Two big wooden trunks were piled on top of the table. Father’s bookshelf was tucked behind the door, full of books and kitchen utensils. The door could only be opened halfway because of the shelf behind it. The three of us filed in. Mother’s most precious possession, a sewing machine, was to the left of the door. It had a flat top when the machine was hidden under. Gege pulled three stools from under the dining table, and we sat in front of the sewing machine.
Gege took the letter out of his pocket and opened it. He hesitated a little, then passed the letter to Lili, and asked, “Want to read it to us, Lili?”
“Go ahead, Lili,” I said.
She took the letter, and read, “Dear Maomao, Nan-nan and Lili.” I wished Lili’s name had been first, but Lili didn’t seem to mind; she was carried away by the honor. “How are you doing? How are you ... What’s this word?” she showed it to me.
“Cope. How are you coping with everything without Mother and Father? I miss you very much.” It was written by Mother. I continued to read without realizing I had taken over Lili’s job. “I can’t stand the thought that some children have their relatives to live with, while you three are completely on your own. I can’t eat well. I can’t sleep at night. Mother and Father didn’t mean to leave you alone. Someday you’ll understand this.”
My eyes were blurry. I looked up from the letter. Gege took it and continued to read, “Father has been assigned to the chicken farm, I to the field. He has to get up very early in the morning to work in the chicken farm. He’s getting used to it. I work long hours in the field, from sunrise to sundown. I’m glad your father wasn’t assigned to the field. He wouldn’t be able to survive this kind of labor. Maomao, I sent Aunt Chen some money and asked her to buy milk for you three every day. Half a pound each. She’ll have the boiled milk ready for you every morning. So remember to go to Aunt Chen’s apartment and get the milk each day. Write us about your life. We want to know everything.”
“Let’s all write. Give your letters to me tomorrow. I’ll go to the post office.” Gege was quick to move on, while I was still picturing Mother in the field and Father in the chicken farm.
“I can’t write much. May I tag on your letter?” Lili asked Gege in a tentative tone.
“You can tag on mine, Lili,” I interjected before Gege answered.
It was raining a little harder. Two umbrellas were moving in the mist of the night. Lili and I followed Gege, hand in hand under my umbrella. We were on our way back to the Center. I thought of my roommates, and felt we were lucky to still have a family.
From then on, Gege went to get the milk every day as Mother had said in the letter. The milk was put in a thermos. He brought the thermos back to the Little Room and waited for Lili and me. On our way to school, Lili and I stopped by the Little Room to drink the milk. It occurred to me sometimes that now I had a chance to collect all the rubber bands I wanted, but I had grown out of that hobby. How I wish time froze right then! We didn’t have much, but we had Gege, who seemed able to handle everything, and whom we could trust and rely on.
But one day after school, I was passing by the office of the Center. Aunt Lin, one of the teachers, motioned me to come in. She stood up from her chair, looking serious. Bending down, she whispered into my ear, “Nan-nan, there is a problem with your brother. You need to talk with him.”
“What’s the problem?”
“He stole Xiao-ming’s slippers. All his roommates said he did.”
“No! It’s impossible!” I didn’t want to believe it, but I hadn’t learned to distrust adults.
“I think, Nan-nan, you should have a serious conversation with your brother. Help him to give up evil and return to good.”
She used the phrase “give up evil and return to good,” which was used often then, but only of counter-revolutionaries. Counter-revolutionaries were the most dangerous enemies of the revolution. I realized how serious Gege’s problem was.
I didn’t go back to my room; I was afraid of my roommates’ looks. I felt that everybody knew my brother was a thief. After wandering outside for a while, I found myself in the Little Room. It was the first time that I had been alone in the Little Room since Mother and Father left. There was nobody there to tell me what to do. I had to talk to Gege. But how? How could I talk to Gege, who had become the absolute authority in the “family”? We had a family in the Little Room because of him; we had a life together because of him. How could I raise my hand and break the idol of our small family? Yet he had stolen a pair of slippers! He had degenerated into a thief! I couldn’t help but feel ashamed and angry. I decided I would write Gege a letter, and try to persuade him to give up evil and return to good.
I sat down at the sewing machine and wrote the following with tears in my eyes:
I folded the letter in half and put a spool of thread on top of it as a paper weight. Feeling relieved, I left the Little Room.
I saw Gege hurrying up the stairs. He must have seen my swollen eyes, for he asked, “What happened? Did somebody bully you?”
A surge of guilt suddenly seized me. I ran away from him as fast as I could.
Next morning, I was heading for school when a voice exploded behind me, “Come back here, you!” I didn’t realize it was Gege until I turned around and saw him running down the stairs outside the building. Uttering not a single word, he grabbed my hand and dragged me towards the office. I staggered along. In the twinkling of an eye, we were in front of Aunt Lin.
Letting go of me, Gege grabbed Aunt Lin, and yanked her out of her chair. Gege appeared taller and stronger at that moment.
“Say loud and clear in front of my sister who stole the slippers!” Gege roared like an angry lion.
“I... I heard from your roommates...” Aunt Lin’s voice was trembling and so was her body.
“Say loud and clear in front of my sister that it wasn’t me!” He wouldn’t let go of her.
“It wasn’t you. I need to do more investiga...”
Gege didn’t wait for her to finish. He left the office, pulling me with him. I was thrilled at what Gege did. It was over! I didn’t realize until later that something else was also over.
Gege stopped in a quiet corner outside the building and said to me, “Listen, you little nasty girl! You disgusted me with your revolutionary letter!” Then he turned and ran away. Before I could come up with an apology, he had disappeared.
There is a time when the moon isn’t full. There is a time when loved ones have to part. Gege graduated from middle school and became one of the millions of “Young Graduates.” According to Chairman Mao, Young Graduates were to be re-educated through hard labor in the countryside. Gege was assigned to work on an army farm in Inner Mongolia, hundreds of miles away from our city. Mother took a leave from the May 7 School, but Father wasn’t allowed to leave. The Party Secretary said that one person was enough to help with Gege’s departure.
For the time being, the four of us—Mother, Gege, Lili and I—lived in the Little Room. The full-size bed was put together and squeezed in the middle of the room. The wooden trunks that used to be on top of the dining table were pushed under the bed. Now we had space for sleeping and eating.
On the night before Gege’s departure, the four of us crowded into the bed. We had to lie sideways instead of head to foot. If we stretched out, our feet would hang over the edge of the bed, so we bent ourselves instead.
Mother wanted Lili and me to stay home the next day. It seemed that she was trying to protect Lili and me from being part of yet another departure scene. Lili and I lay in bed next to each other without making any noise. I sensed it ought to be a quiet moment. So did Lili, I guess. She had become a sensible girl at a young age. Gege lay right next to the edge of the bed, and Mother was next to him. He had his back toward Mother. I heard Mother saying, “Maomao, do you want to say something to Nan-nan and Lili? They aren’t going to the Town Square tomorrow.” The Town Square was where the Young Graduates were to convene before they left for the train station.
Gege didn’t say anything until Mother gave up and reached for the cord to turn off the light. Just as the light went off, Gege said, “Nan-nan ought to go to Aunt Lin’s apartment every morning at 7:15 to get the milk for Lili.”
I suddenly realized that Gege’s departure meant more than just saying goodbye. There was a responsibility shifted from his shoulders to mine, the responsibility of being a parent. I forgot Mother wasn’t staying after Gege left. I forgot there wasn’t going to be anybody around except Lili and me. I turned toward Lili and cuddled closer to her.
When I woke up in the morning, Gege was eating breakfast. Lili was awake, too. Mother cooked Gege’s favorite noodle soup on an electric burner. She had to use an electric burner because we had lost our coal ration. You got coal only if you were registered as a family. But we were all registered as members of collective units: Mother and Father in the farm unit, the three of us in the Center unit. There was a smell of sesame oil in the air. Gege made no slurping noise while eating, as he usually did. Mother sat behind him on the edge of the bed with tearful eyes.
“Nobody is going with me,” Gege said. “I’d like to go alone.” Issuing his last order to us, he grabbed his green canvas bag, and flew out of the room.
Mother didn’t obey him. She followed him out, leaving Lili and me in bed. Lili stared at me for an order for the next move.
Before long, Lili was on the backseat of my bicycle, and we were on our way to the “jumping-off point” of the Young Graduates’ long journey.
When we arrived at the Town Square, the Young Graduates were already on the trucks. There were four army trucks, packed full. Each truck was surrounded by parents and friends. They were all calling out the names of their sons or daughters or friends; each word or each look could be the last for a long time. The Young Graduates were shouting each other’s names, too, except they sounded more excited than sad. To them, it seemed like an adventure and a trip to the unknown. They didn’t know it was also a trip of no return.
Lili and I stood far from the trucks, stretching our necks for a glimpse of Gege. I spotted him on the one furthest from us. He was in a green army uniform, the most fashionable outfit for students then. Mother stood near the crowd, facing the truck. I could see only her back. Gege looked down at the crowd around the trucks, not at Mother. He didn’t seem as excited as the others. He didn’t seem sad either. I saw in his face relief and doubtfulness. Relieved perhaps from all the responsibilities forced upon him. Doubtful perhaps about yet another revolutionary movement.
Mother waved at Gege hesitantly. Gege frowned as soon as he caught Mother’s eyes. He turned his back on her. Mother waved no more. She looked down at the ground, her shoulders shaking a bit.
After Gege left, Lili was sent to live with one of my aunts in Shanghai. Mother went back to join Father on the labor farm. I was left alone in the city, finishing junior high. Mother gave me two jobs. One was to send Lili her grain coupons issued by the government every month. Although Lili was living in Shanghai, she still got her grain coupons here because she was registered here. My second job was to send Gege dried meat and fish to supplement his rations.
Gege didn’t write much, but in his letters I could see fragments of his life. He sent me a picture of himself. It became my favorite picture of him. In the picture, Gege was wearing a padded army uniform, and was standing firmly on the ground with his feet a little apart from each other and his arms crossed at his chest. In the background was a lonely railroad in the middle of a wintry grassland; a few camels were moving along, carrying heavy loads. Looking carefully, I saw a trace of a cynical smile on Gege’s face. I suddenly realized that Gege had become a man, a man with his own mind. I framed the picture and put it on Mother’s sewing machine in the Little Room.
Gege’s stay on the army farm turned out to be lengthy. He didn’t get out for seven years, and even then he couldn’t have gotten out had it not been for what happened to him one afternoon in a small town outside the farm.
Gege had been suffering from a serious stomach problem. After many requests, he was finally granted leave to enter a hospital. It was miles away. After a long walk, he reached the hospital and was diagnosed as having an ulcer. He left the hospital, devastated by the news.
It was around noon. He started to feel the usual pains. He decided to eat something, which was what he usually did to stop the pain. He walked into a small restaurant, and waited in a long line for a piece of steamed bread. When it was finally his turn, he was asked for a grain coupon issued by the local government, in addition to money. He explained that he wasn’t a resident of the town and he only needed a piece of bread to soothe his stomach. He asked to be exempted from the coupon requirement. The answer was a firm “No!” He turned around and asked the person behind him whether he could spare a coupon. The answer was again “No!” He walked out of the line, and asked someone eating at a table for a coupon. The answer was again “No!” Desperate and angry, he started to beg everyone in the restaurant for a coupon, though he knew what their answers would be.
In the letter he wrote Mother, Gege said, “My stomach was killing me. I kept begging until I had humiliated everyone as well as myself.”
Mother and Father couldn’t stand it anymore. They tried everything to get Gege out. They used all their connections. They implored, bribed, and cheated. They did everything they used to consider immoral and humiliating. Life and the Revolution had collided, and they chose life.
Mother told me about this so many times that I wondered if she was becoming senile. Over and over, I told her that she had done the right thing, and had saved Gege’s life. I didn’t tell her, though, that it was too late to save his faith in human nature.
At the age of twenty-three, Gege came back to Mother and Father, who had left the labor farm and moved to a southern city. Lili lived with them, too.
A few years passed. Gege married. I graduated from college. More years passed. Gege became a father. I went abroad and lived in a country not my own.
Now we’re busy with our different lives in different places. The distance between us has become greater. We used to be separated by familiar villages and rivers. Now we’re separated by strange mountains and oceans.
Gege never writes to me, but Mother does. She says Gege is still quiet, even quieter than when he was little and he is cynical about everything.
Gege and I used to be close. Now we can’t be further apart. I miss the days when Gege and I were together, and I wish he could hear me when I cried from my heart, “Ge--ge--! I want Gege--!”
First published in Xin Yu Si (July, 1995, Issue 18)|
Later published in Press Freedom Guardian (5/10/96, #208)